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Spreading science through the community

Pollen is not the only thing spreading around the north shore of Long Island this spring. Science is too, courtesy of a trio of researchers from CSHL who infused scientific flavor into two community events this month.

CSHL geneticist Rob Martienssen and neuroscientist Anne Churchland were on hand at Huntington’s Cinema Arts Center recently to offer moviegoers some insights on the science of addiction before settling down for a screening of “Trainspotting,” the classic cult hit about a group of heroin addicts set in Edinburgh in the 1980s.

This science-and-cinema pairing was one of several similar events taking place at theaters around the country as part of a popular program, Science on Screen. (The next event on May 3 pairs a particle physicist from Brookhaven National Laboratory with the time travel movie “12 Monkeys.”) The program aims to provide the “perfect combination of entertainment and enlightenment” by inviting renowned experts from the scientific and medical world to use movies as anchor points to introduce the public to a scientific topic and the latest advances in related research.

Churchland, who studies the neural circuitry of decision-making, took moviegoers on a tour through the brain’s so-called “pleasure circuit,” the network of neurons that ensures that we repeat life-sustaining activities by associating those activities with pleasure and reward.

Most drugs, including heroin—the villain in “Trainspotting”—overstimulate the brain’s reward system by flooding the circuit with dopamine, a chemical neurotransmitter that facilitates communication between neurons. Churchland drew on the movie’s plot to highlight various aspects of drug addiction, such as the mechanistic basis of relapse and the tendency to co-abuse another stimulant, such as alcohol. Read Churchland’s take on the science of Trainspotting.

Martienssen, whose work involves the study of genome organization and the principles of inheritance, explained that addiction can also be thought of as a form of cellular memory that changes brain cells in a fundamental way, thereby making recovery difficult. He presented evidence from studies in mice and other systems that show how environmental triggers are “remembered” by cells through processes known as epigenetic modifications—chemical changes to the DNA that influence how genes are “read.”

Could there possibly be a better venue to learn about one of the hottest and most complicated topics in scientific research than a movie screening? How about a book club meeting in the basement of a public library?

Last week, cell biologist and cancer researcher David Spector, who is CSHL’s Director of Research, brought his knowledge, experience and perspective about HeLa cells, the star of Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” to a discussion at Cold Spring Harbor Library and Environmental Center.

In addition to giving more than 100 fans of the book a glimpse of the tremendous impact this cell line has made on medical research and the discoveries that it contributed to both at CSHL and at institutions around the world, Spector led a debate that touched on bioethics, informed consent, intellectual property, health care and poverty—some of the many issues that the book raises.

The attendees were particularly fascinated to learn from Spector how the cells, which became controversial for their use without their donor’s knowledge or consent, spawned a new system of institutional review boards that exercise strict oversight of the use of human samples in biomedical research.

Pollinating popular culture with scientific fact and perspective is a healthy activity. We’re glad to set our community abuzz with it.

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